Said to me today: “She’s very very high up – because I report to her”


Kim as the new man

Having now finished, I’d propose a (romantic, Victorian, Hegelian) counter-reading of Kim that doesn’t fully deny the Orientalist perspective on it, but shows how the/a text can work in all directions. Kim’s contact with the spy Colonel Creighton provokes a immediate rupture in consciousness:

‘….I am a Sahib.’ He looked at his boots ruefully. ‘No; I am Kim. This is the great world, and I am only Kim. Who is Kim?’ He considered his own identity, a thing he had never done before, till his head swam. He was one insignificant person in all this roaring whirl of India.

Kim is the ‘new man’ of India, for whom identity is a question, raised to consciousness where before there was none. The Great Game of spying in defence of the British Empire comes in as his new orientation, but it is the mark of a divided self:

‘Therefore, in one situate as thou art, it particularly behoves thee to remember this with both kinds of faces. Among Sahibs, never forgetting thou art a Sahib; among the folk of Hind, always remembering thou art –‘ [Mahbub] paused, with a puzzled smile.
‘What am I? Mussalman, Hindu, Jain, or Buddhist? That is a hard knot.’

The implication here is not only the open meaning of the text, that to defend oneself in a tight spot one behaves as appropriate to ones race (quando in Roma), not simply either that Kim is split, but that Kim is forced into a mask at all times, a deception of each audience, by holding back the rest of himself that cannot be shown. A divided consciousness not unlike the more anaemic Prufrock who must ‘prepare a face to meet the faces that you meet.’

Kim sketches out playfully and early what will ultimately be the (political) resolution of the novel as a whole, with shift in reference here from people as race to people as inhabitants of a space :

‘In the madrissah I will be a Sahib. But when the madrissah is shut, then I must be free and go among my people. Otherwise I die!’
‘And who are thy people, Friend of all the World?’
‘This great and beautiful land,’ said Kim.

But it is only after playing the Great Game that he has worked through this division to reach a psychological solution. Grown now, Kim helps the sick lama down from the hills to the plains, carrying the secret stash of papers he has taken from the enemy, and himself falls sick. The lama perceives this as the young man taking on his own sickness. But we can see this as the burden ‘incommunicable’ of carrying the secret papers: ‘If someone duly authorised would only take delivery of them the Great Game might play itself for aught he then cared’….’their weight on his shoulders was nothing to their weight on his poor mind’. It’s interesting here that in the lama and Kim ultimately going south to find the river, Kipling reverses (if only as far as Benares) the discourses common in British India (described by Mark Paffard) that saw the whiter peoples of the North as closer to Europeans, reinforcing caste conceptions

Edward Said has Kim’s return to health – ‘roads were meant to be walked on, houses to be lived in…’ and so on – as the renewal of spatial desire of the coloniser. But this, and his recourse to the ‘hopeful dust’ so that ‘Mother Earth … breathed through him’, I’d regard as the recognition of the recovery of a whole at a more complex level of awareness: space in this ‘great and beautiful land’ as containing ordinary lived life that is more ‘essential’ than race, or the game.

The Empire of Fear

I was thinking the other day of The Four Feathers, my favourite film as a child, as it conjured a world of cowardice and rectification – perfect for the 8 year old whose dream was of proving to everyone how special he was and whose hidden fear was that he would not. I was at one with the child Harry in the film who pauses on the stair with the lighted candle and surveys the ghoulish military ancestors he will have to live up to.

Harry Faversham refuses to fight in the Sudan and his three fellow soldiers and fiancee each give him a white feather. He then proceeds to fake himself as a local dumb dervish and rescue the soldiers from peril, returning the feathers.

An inverted revenge fantasy, where revenge is of the symbolic order which actually conduces to the good of those on whom it is visited. ‘I was the man you thought I was, or an even greater one. Hah!’ Later, I realised the militaristic and colonial assumptions and felt guilty, but still watched it once a decade each time it surfaced on TV – somewhat gloomily for lack of being able to recover the original impression. Now, though I haven’t seen the postcolonial version by Shekhar Kapur, I begin to fantasize a revisionary filming… the refusal to go to war, the understanding of the other implied in taking on their garb and mannerisms (as implicitly with Kim, if only to a certain extent), and the saving of militaristic individuals to a higher awareness whilst acting as a witness to the early death throes of empire …

I’ve been reading academic treatments of crime fiction, several of which seem all too straightforwardly to put forward a view that the rationalist/empiricist detective, a panopticon in human form in being able to penetrate the complexity of modern society, provides structural reassurance of order. I suspect this reassurance model owes a fair bit to theory around children and fairy tales. At what point does this view have to recognise, beyond the sheer lascivious curtain-twitching desire for sensation, the constant traces of disorder and anger that are not buried but if anything validated even by the successful detective who solves the puzzle? Christie seems a case in point (ably followed by Minette Walters) – even if only one person is proved to have dunnit, the seedy motivations of the entire suspect list are unearthed and they are all shown to have wanted it and been capable of it at some level. Christie herself encapsulates the structural logic of this worldview in Murder on the Orient Express. As with the Four Feathers, the anxieties continue to haunt, and not the resolution. Perhaps modern culture (including the mass media) produces and reproduces these anxieties to a higher and higher level of intensity, and it is not, as Rousseau suggested, the arts and letters which garland our chains with flowers, but rather the appearance of these fleurs du mal which provoke a real-world enchaining response from state and society. As Plato almost said, shoot the lot of them/us!

The Empire of ‘Empire’

Reading Kim. At present am following Kim onto the Great Trunk Road. I take all the points of various commentators, Said being the one that stands out, of just how vested in imperialism and an order of distinct ‘us’ and ‘them’ the text is. How the boy Kim’s capacity to play and to shape-shift and spy is underpinned by an ethic of the colonies being a playground for the exotic wanderings of the white man. But it still saddens me to see that the prior borrower of the text has heavily underscored every line that the characters in the book use to distinguish other characters as having a particular caste or religion, with the occasional annotation – I imagine it was a muttered annotation – that conjures up the image of a student sweating over an essay reaffirming all this to the nth degree. And not a single pencil mark on the warmer or more subtle parts of the text: the picaresque qualities, the holy man’s reprimands of the boisterous simplistic boy, the way that – regardless of Kipling’s intention – Kim’s disguises ultimately draw attention to acculturation and not race as a key feature of (potential) definition. It seems odd to me to even posit that in capturing the joshing, haranguing and even violence between Indian characters – perhaps stereotypically – a text of this period would not use caste and religion as a reference point. But not every text would have a holy man rejoin to Kim ‘Low caste I did not say, for how can that be which is not?’

It seems to me that what some allegedly uncritical readers have seen as the magical qualities of the novel are partly accounted for by the vicarious pleasure it affords of being within the teeming life of an unfamiliar world. And that unfamiliarity nevertheless admits of hybrids, modern accommodations of ancient ways, conflict, irony, and humanity that crosses boundaries (as in the free gift of his glasses by the museum curator to the lama, which might admittedly be seen as the imposition of aid by the Western ‘technologist’, but also is humorously undercut by the curator’s covetousness for the antique he receives unexpectedly in return).


Lowell and Plath are often lumped together in confessional poetry but it seems to me that Lowell is still a modernist who manages the uniquely challenging task of documenting and ‘retaining’ a/his screaming persona through the Eliot-inspired lens of impersonality in a triumph of formal collocation; whereas with Plath what we hear above all is not the form but the scream. It is a knowing scream – we can imagine her winking to us as she utters it – and form is still used to articulate it brilliantly, but she is scary, bringing us up close to the personal tear in the fabric, in a way that Lowell is not, as he ironizes into an entire squirming culture.

Writing about writing about writing about

You couldn’t make it up…or could you?

In praise of slush

Why all this hatred directed at slush? I’m hearing it everywhere. It seems to offend romantic and purist notions. We want things to be exact in their categories, and beauty to be defined by things we have learnt from picture postcard visions. We like the whiteness of snow and want to see it as untainted, pretty, an original state. Slush reminds us of compromise, of death and decay, an uncomfortable imperfect state mixing snow and ice and rain and dirt and the imprint of our own feet, messing up ‘nature’.

I love the greediness of slush, the way it’s a hybrid of things, accepting of anything – bits of grass, a crisp packet, the vague browning mark of tyres. It’s a blurring of boundaries, and a world in flux. A whole city in a footfall. Mushiness containing that edge of hard snow and ice with melancholy intimations of darkness. Delightfully greasy and practically invisible when almost cleared from the roads and pavements, it forces you into a more intimate attention to the surfaces your feet are treading than any malingering, blanketing ice could do.

(A gorgeous picture to follow.)